In a home recording environment, we have the ability to track almost any instrument. But if your home studio is space limited, tracking live drums is not an option. The neighbors, your family, acoustics, as well as other reasons make it impossible. So, if you don’t have another studio to record that familiar drum kit, or if you don’t even KNOW a drummer — you can program drums yourself, or use drum loops. These will work well, especially if you know how to edit and “humanize” these beats. But, in a world that is growing smaller, we get a chance to hear the percussion of other countries via an Internet filled with unique taps, clicks, and swells and that awaken our ears. You do not need to mix or produce world music to use these distinctive instruments. They can fit seamlessly in pop, singer-songwriter, country, or ANY genre. I use them extensively, and you will hear an example in a mix of mine that I have posted at the bottom of this page. There are millions of samples and loops of these great alternative sounds waiting for you to incorporate into your next project. Here are a few ideas:
Swap Your Tambourine
Why not take a chance with a new jingle and jangle? You can edit these tasty sounds to your liking, and forgo the usual, traditional tambourine. Angels have been joyfully showing off this instrument for centuries in paintings and sculptures. There are many variations of this recognizable frame with varying sizes, tones, and styles of zils attached to create the sparkle your mix could use. This example was from a library of percussion and entitled Tigris Zimble:
And this one is called Shetland Tamurin:
Exchange Your Cymbals
Have you ever laboriously searched for that perfect cymbal tone? Cymbals did not become a permanent part of the percussion section until the late 19th century after composers — including Beethoven and Liszt — successfully included their airy sound into popular orchestral compositions. As mixing engineers, we are very familiar with our popular ride and crash cymbals that are a staple of modern drum kits. And let’s not forget the high-hat cymbals. But maybe you need something completely different to give that shimmer! This sample was discovered amongst some Japanese Katana Drums:
Or how about this cool sound from a Tibetan Peace Drum loop:
Bump Your Bongos
Bongos, congas, cajons, and djembes are commonly used and have great tone. These drums can produce sounds as unique and interesting as their history. But there are literally thousands of drums to choose from for your mix, so maybe it’s time to think outside the box. They are tuned to a variety of notes, and can be made of clay, steel, or varying types of wood — as well as other natural materials to produce one of a kind element for your project. This African Udu has a fabulous flavor for the right song:
Or maybe this component of an Indian Raga Tabla kit could give your song the vibe you are searching for:
(I am thinking that last one has a hip-hop kinda groove!)
Using these distinctive percussive sounds gives you a chance to practice many mixing techniques that can’t be utilized on other melodic tracks that need to represent their instrument more accurately. With percussion, you can twist and tweak sounds until you achieve the exact thump or whack you are searching for. Using any popular transient designer (one of my all time faves is Alloy 2) you can sculpt the attack and sustain of your percussion track and create exclusive sounds. Try shaping the element with a variety of saturation and distortion techniques (I enjoy using FabFilter Saturn), or simply have fun with your stock compressor and noise gate to get a beat that is completely yours. Whether you keep your percussion sounding natural or totally alien, you will learn by experimenting and practicing new ideas. Your song will begin to take on a life of its own.
As I mentioned above, there is a song I recently wrote and produced that incorporates some world instruments, along with traditional percussion. This song is singer/songwriter acoustic style, with a massive chorus. There is no bass in the song until 3:12, but by using an African Udu drum on the chorus to give some low end (as well as an element from an Indian/Middle Eastern kit on the left) I was able to get just the sound I was searching for:
So, ladies, we can mix to the beat of a different drum. The familiar is fine, but why not take a listen to some new beats. Get creative!
Do you use world instruments in your mixes? Share your ideas and links to your creations below!